The sun glowed gold behind the barns as we traveled west through Illinois and into the plains of Iowa. Long afternoon shadows rested on the fallow soil. The farmers were now busy elsewhere during this cold season and I gave thanks. Thanks to Jesus for farmers and for food and for growing things and for rest from growing things.
My husband and I were taking a trip. To rest from growing things.
Two days and two nights across the United States in a train. To rest from ministry and growth and work. To simply enjoy the gift of creation as we gently swayed on two tracks. From Illinois to California. This was to be our first American Railroad Trip.
The Great Hall of Union Station in Chicago testified to the grand old days of the Railroad. Amidst the tall skyscrapers of this modern city, the majestic Great Hall warmly embraced us, dressed up in her Christmas splendor. She was built during the era of prohibition and gangsters. In my imagination I saw Al Capone lurking behind her marble walls and her Corinthian columns. I was reminded of how shallow earthly kingdoms truly are and how easily they fall.
Our sleeper coach was smaller than expected. Knees touched as my husband sat opposite me. The bathroom facilities and shower are probably best suited to an elf. (Offer me grace – it is Christmas time and elf is what comes to mind.) Two tall people in a small space for two days took a bit of management. I have a few bruises on my elbow that speak of the times we moved around without prior thought. They are battle scars of an adventure we would gladly take again. Besides, we spent our daytime in the Lounge with its huge picture windows and ever changing scenery.
Iowa slid away into the setting sun. As we stepped into the dining cart, Nebraska became our nighttime home. White tablecloths, friendly staff and a surprisingly decent dinner was made all the more enjoyable as we swopped stories with fellow travelers. Everything on a train is compact so you don’t get the luxury of dining at a private table.
Our armchairs had been turned into beds when we stepped back into our berth – a bottom double bed (for two elves or one human wife) and a top stretcher type bed (for one husband). We fell asleep talking to each other like school kids at camp as the train swayed on her tracks.
Morning saw us leave the desert beauty and climb the majestic Rocky Mountains. The tracks wind their way along the Colorado River. We saw bald eagles, coyote, deer, rugged rocks, flowing rivers, tall trees and not a single human or vehicle. Just our train, our God and our quiet thoughts.
The second morning we had breakfast as Utah slipped behind us. The long mornings of winter darkness prevented us from seeing much of this State. I settled down in the Lounge for a day of reading, pre-judging Nevada as desert and neon cities.
I have never been more wrong.
Fresh snow had fallen during the night. It gently covered the landscape and enveloped our train into a Christmas scene of which carolers sing. As far as the eye could see, the untouched snow sparkled in the sun that snuck through the heavy clouds. Brilliant patterns were carved into rivers that had frozen mid-stream over rocks. Tracks from a lone animal trailed across fields of wonder.
I am beyond grateful for this unexpected Christmas gift of Nevada in the snow. All I could think was “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all men.”
Christ-mass is about celebrating His glory and the peace he bring to Earth. I found that celebration, that peace, that Christmas in a place I had initially scorned.
Somewhere Nevada turned into California and the beauty just kept coming until we slowly wound our way down into the valley and the snow turned into city and Sacramento came all too soon.
This world, this creation, this planet is a gift of astonishing beauty. From human ingenuity in the cities that we have built to the sacred sanctuaries of nature we are charged to protect, this world, this life, this very breath we breathe is a gift.
May you be reminded of the true gifts that only Jesus can give this Christmas season.
As you give gifts, may you give them with the generosity of spirit and the heart of love with which God has given to us.